Bad Biology in Marie Lu’s Champion

*SPOILERS* ahead for Legend, Prodigy, and especially Champion by Marie Lu.


As I’ve been reading popular YA dystopian series, I’ve noticed a common motif: plagues.  The Matched, Maze Runner, and Legend series all have a plot element (generally in the 3rd book) involving some kind of terrible disease that main characters are trying to stop.  This element is used for societal and ethical commentary, because these plagues were engineered and unleashed by people. However, using a disease as a plot device opens the door to biological science fiction, which is something I really enjoy…when it’s done well.

Sorry, Eureka, that's not how you pipette. Nope.
Sorry, Eureka, that’s not how you pipette. Nope.

Now, I really enjoyed Champion, the finale of the Legend trilogy, but its biology is utter crap.

The first two books, Legend and Prodigy, don’t really go into biological details, and that’s fine.  We know that Day’s brother Eden is being used as a bioweapon against the Colonies, having been infected with a virus by the Republic government.  June, who as one of the Republic’s elite has had regular vaccinations against the plague viruses, also came down sick with something as she and Day were escaping to the Colonies.

The science starts to take a turn for the worse in Champion.  First, the Colonies threaten to halt the peace process unless the Republic provides the cure for the viral plague spreading through their territory; the Republic government assumes it’s Eden’s plague and requests to study him to develop the cure.  Herein lies our first problem: who in their right mind would attack a NEIGHBORING COUNTRY with a weaponized virus without first having the cure, or at least retaining samples to study?  It’s no good if you win the war, only to kill your own population when the virus makes its way back to you, which it inevitably will if it’s as extremely contagious as you designed it to be.

This is merely a flaw of logic; it can be waved away by supposing that the Republic is a thoroughly incompetent government.  Almost exactly ¾ of the way through Champion, we reach flaws in biology.

Scientists tell June that they haven’t been able to develop a cure from Eden’s blood, because the virus attacking the Colonies is a mutated form.  The cure they are trying to develop consists of “cure particles” which attach to an infected cell and keep it from lysing (breaking) open and dying.  But the mutated virus paradigm somehow changes the way the cure particles interact with the cells, and the ones made from Eden’s blood can’t attach to the cells infected with the mutated virus…

This explanation takes at least two pages, where plenty of scientific jargon is thrown around, and none of it makes any sense.  I am not even clear on whether the “tubes” are initially part of the cure particles or the cell itself.

Viruses do work by attacking a cell, then commandeering its machinery to produce more copies of itself, then lysing the cell open to let the new copies of the virus spread.  But treating a virus typically doesn’t mean stopping the cells themselves from lysing, but rather encouraging the immune system to attack the virus itself more effectively.

Most of what we do to treat viruses relies on the principle of antigens and antibodies in the immune system.  When our body recognizes virus invaders (“antigens”), it creates specific antibodies to attach to them, which prevents them from entering cells and also helps direct other aspects of the immune system to destroy them.

This wikipedia schematic shows how antibodies bind to specific antigens with a "lock and key" model
This wikipedia schematic shows how antibodies bind to specific antigens with a “lock and key” model

The idea that Eden and June’s blood could hold the key to treatment of the virus follows this principle.  In the current Ebola epidemic, we have seen survivor Dr. Kent Brantly’s blood used to successfully treat one other patient, and is now being tried for two others, including the Dallas nurse who contracted the disease on American soil.  His blood serum has antibodies against the virus, which when transfused into another patient will help effectively tag the virus for the patient’s immune system to destroy.

So, the book’s “cure particles” seem similar to antibodies, but it has confused their target, which is the viral particles themselves, not the cells they infect.  (I still have no idea what the “tubes” are meant to be.)  Unless the setting is meant to be in an alternate universe (no indication of this in the books), antigens and antibodies would still work the same in future North America as they do now, and I doubt the knowledge regarding them would have been lost in ~100 years.

So to take that concept further, it also makes no sense that Eden and June would have to go through all kinds of harrowing tests, including taking bone marrow (?!), when all that’s needed is the antibodies in their blood.

The supposed mutation of the virus is another issue.  We find out that Eden is not Patient 0 for the Colonies’ current virus after all; the virus is actually a combination of Eden’s and the one that June had while crossing the border.  (Shouldn’t June’s vaccinations have protected her?  Was she only vaccinated against viruses prevalent in LA?  Or are the vaccinations a sham to keep the populace calm?)

Viruses mutate naturally all the time; that’s why the components of flu vaccines change from year to year.  (However, there’s no reason to think Ebola will mutate specifically to become airborne.) I don’t know how likely it is for two random viruses to combine together naturally.  It can and does happen with similar strains of viruses, like two types of influenza; it’s called “antigenic shift” and is thought to be responsible for several flu outbreaks, including the H1N1 outbreak of 2009.  But we have no way of knowing if Eden and June’s viruses are at all similar.  So the scientist’s assertion that the Colonies tampered with the virus to create the new mutated strain could make sense.

Except…there’s no scientific way that I know of to prove it.  Splicing DNA or RNA together generally doesn’t leave any kind of fingerprint, certainly not a “marker” that could be “labeled” in a cell.  Perhaps if the Colonies’ scientists added extra “foreign” DNA or RNA not found in either virus?  But the Republic scientists would have had to sequence the whole viral DNA to find it, analyze what every gene does, then develop a way to tag the foreign ones.  And I can’t think of a reason for the Colonies to do that anyway.

Lastly, where are the original researchers that did the bioweapon research on Eden?  They should be involved in making the cure, since they oversaw the development of the virus.  Instead, we have random doctors at the hospital working on Eden and Tess, and a “lab tech” explaining the science to June.  Perhaps all the lead researchers have been executed, or Day refused to let them around his brother to avoid trauma.  But for such an important project, with the future of the country literally at stake, it seems the people with the most expertise should have been called in.

All these scientific inaccuracies cannot be fully explained away by the story; the fault lies with the author.  I truly wish Marie Lu had biologists critique these pages, or even better, left them out entirely, and not just because it would have slightly increased my enjoyment of the book.  With the current Ebola outbreak and inane controversies over vaccination, it’s important for people, especially young adults, to be scientifically literate about virology and immunology.  While the bad science probably doesn’t do any harm, Champion could have been used to educate young people about how viruses work, and how we try to fight them.   A sad missed opportunity in an otherwise great book.

I am not an epidemiologist/virologist/immunologist, but I do have a degree in zoology and work in medical research.  If you think any of my science in this post is wrong, or if you have any better explanation of the virology as presented in the book, I would love to be corrected and learn more.  Also, I’ve only read this series once and I don’t own it, so please correct me on any details from the books that may be relevant.


3 thoughts on “Bad Biology in Marie Lu’s Champion

  1. NovEllaandBanannabelle October 19, 2014 / 7:57 am

    Great analysis! I agree—if the science isn’t accurate, the author shouldn’t add extra “details.” A little more research, or just omitting it, makes much more sense…

    Liked by 1 person

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